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I Passed Notes

A former planning commissioner opens up about texting talking points, 'following orders' and the Journal's lawsuit



I believe that the Journal has raised a couple very important points in its lawsuit and accompanying editorial ("Stop Passing Notes!," Nov. 2). The first involves the transmittal of otherwise personal communication during an official's "public" working hours. On this subject I believe the Journal is incorrect in its assertion that these communications are disclosable under the Public Records Act. 

I think this can be best exemplified by the example of the spouse of a public official texting the results of a family member's medical test. Clearly this information would fall well outside the public's right to know and would constitute an equally clear invasion of the privacy of non-elected members of the official's family. Just because something happens during business hours does not make it a matter of business. Most of us receive calls or texts at work for personal matters. How we deal with them might be subject to our employers' rules but the content of such correspondence would not. I believe this applies to the question of the quantity of correspondence as well. If an official has an important family matter or just a self-absorbed teenager who sends a text every half hour, private is still private. Of course, these examples could and perhaps should be subject to rules determined by the boards and councils themselves.

As to the matter of "... responding to constituent emails that can be handled later during a public meeting, when their attention should be on the topics at hand and the speakers addressing them." On this I would strongly agree with the Journal. A public official should be singularly focused on what the public is saying during public meetings.

With respect to the second issue raised by the Journal's suit, that of communications that do include subjects of public interest, the Journal is unquestionably correct in arguing that they are disclosable. 

Years ago during public meetings on the General Plan, I personally sent many texts to two members of our Board of Supervisors and did so at the request of at least one of them. At the time, I held no public office and was acting as an advocate for certain policies, so I saw no conflict in my doing so. These particular officials were not able to understand the implications and ramifications of the language they were voting on, despite many hours of meetings beforehand, and, in some cases, due to their not having read the materials. As a result, as certain topics came up for a vote or discussion, I would text information I felt relevant to their decisions from the audience. The supervisor might text a follow up question or ask how to best phrase an argument to support a particular position. 

Without question, this kind of communication is and should be disclosable to the public. As an aside, around the same time, members of the Board of Supervisors also had a regular practice of actually passing notes during meetings. I believe that it was then County Counsel Wendy Chaiten and Supervisor Mark Lovelace who correctly called it out and put a stop to it. Finally, while serving on the Planning Commission, I regularly observed another commissioner receive texts and emails from interested persons. I don't recall if I said something about it but it was definitely distracting during particularly heated meetings. During a Planning Commission meeting recess, I also recall another commissioner, rather pompously, informing me that he had received a message during the meeting from a supervisor "encouraging" a particular outcome. I found this particularly disturbing in that I disagreed with the position. I ultimately voted against the supervisor's wishes and was later severely chastised for not following orders.

I feel the need to note that I have deliberately not included the names of any specific official. I believe the Journal and its suit is intended to address the practices of our elected and appointed officials, not to "out" any particular individuals. I believe that pointing a finger would distract from the more important matter of affecting public policy. I will add that, in my experience, the practices I address are more or less equally carried out across the political spectrum and based more on an individual's proclivities than orientation.  

An important issue addressed by the Journal is whether these kinds of communications between elected officials and staff or members of the public are appropriate at all. 

On this I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the public should have the right to know who our officials are interacting with and on what subjects. On the other, outside of public meetings our elected officials meet with hundreds of people to gain information, perspectives and other insights without reporting those meetings unless asked. This is an important and expected part of their job. 

I believe that much of the problem lies with the way our public meetings are conducted. Generally, the members of the public are limited to a three-minute statement on any agenda item and there is no back and forth discussion. This practice is arguably necessary to keep meetings to a reasonable length. But unless an official engages a speaker, there is no opportunity for a knowledgeable person to say, "Wait a minute. You're misunderstanding something." 

This is compounded by the deathly fear most elected officials have of looking or saying something stupid. The result of all this is that the public can't provide much needed assistance and decision makers are afraid to ask for desperately needed help. 

As if that isn't enough, the problem is even further exacerbated by the fact that staff members are allowed to speak as much as they like at these meetings. Naturally in this typical scenario officials tend to rely heavily on their staff and do so even more than on the input from those most affected by their decisions, the public. Is it really any wonder our public policies are actually decided in closed rooms by staff members with their own agendas and biases?

A last concern, and the one that should most concern us all, lies with the few officials who lack the strength of character to actually form their own opinions and rely instead on a finger in the air. This often creates the worst-case scenario where a decision is based on nothing more than what an elected official was told by the last person he or she interacted with. The general public would be shocked to learn just how prevalent this is. Those who deal with this type of official are well aware of how effective it is to be the last appointment or call before a meeting and will jockey for the position accordingly. I, for one, would far prefer an official with whom I occasionally disagree but who can at least understand and articulate our differences to one who's vote is dependent only on a breeze.

Lee Ulansey is a former Freshwater School Board president, Humboldt County planning commissioner, a founder of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights and the Blue Angel Village. A longtime artist and Kneeland resident, he now lives on Kauai, surrounded by Mai Tais and beachgoers, and is very, very happily retired from the dysfunction of Humboldt County politics.

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